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Orbital Begins Taurus Failure Investigation

By | February 26, 2009

      [Satellite News 02-26-09] Orbital Sciences’ investigation into the cause of a Feb. 24 Taurus rocket failure that destroyed NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) could take months, Orbital spokesman Barry Beneski told Satellite News.
          "We assembled a internal failure investigation board made up of senior Orbital engineers with NASA participation on that board," he said. "We are examining the data from the failure and are doing a deep forensic analysis on it to determine the cause and offer a corrective course of action which will implement into our program so we can move forward, but, that process takes a while. We don’t have an exact time frame on it, but we’re talking about a matter of weeks, maybe months."
          OCO was designed to track the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to better understand the role the greenhouse gas plays in the Earth’s climate. According to initial reports, the Taurus XL rocket carrying the satellite failed after the rocket’s payload fairing failed to separate properly. NASA officials declared a mission failure about 13 minutes after launch.
          Beneski said the failure of OCO was especially disappointing to the company’s engineers. "The satellite held a lot of promise. When you look at investigating global warming and climate change, there’s no better way to do it than from a satellite in space. Unfortunately on the launch side, we didn’t get it done. We’re disappointed that we couldn’t get it done for our customers, who we’ve spent years with developing this project."
          Mike Miller, vice president of science and technology satellite programs for Orbital, told Satellite News prior to the launch that some of the company’s engineers had spent their entire professional career on OCO. "This program started as an Earth Systems Science Pathfinder program, which was selected by NASA back in 2001," he said.
          While the mission failure occurred on the launch vehicle, Miller hinted that the program experienced issues throughout the process. "Because of funding restrictions early on, the design phase and procurement of hardware was delayed. The primary factor that slowed things down were development of the instrument and Hamilton Sundstrand and JBL. They had some minor alignment and electronics issues. We could have conceivably launched in 2005."
          NASA, which selected Orbital along with SpaceX for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services, continues to show its support for Orbital, according to Beneski. "This does not, in any way, affect our standing with COTS. Even though the launcher for the COTS program shares a name with the launcher that failed, the Taurus 2 (for the COTS program) and XL rockets use different technology. Taurus 2 is going forward with its development under COTS, along with the Cygnus cargo vehicle. NASA is populated with professionals and veterans with experience in matters like this, which are rare, but still happen. They are clearly prepared for these events."